Hartke, Rupert Vance

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Hartke, Rupert Vance

(b. 31 May 1919 in Stendal, Indiana; d. 27 July 2003 in Fairfax, Virginia), World War II navy veteran and U.S. senator from Indiana from 1959 to 1977.

Hartke was born in 1919 in the small coal-mining town of Stendal, in southern Indiana. His parents, Hugo Hartke, a teacher and town postmaster, and Ida (Egbert) Hartke, an organist and, later, town postmaster, raised four children, three sons and one daughter. Hugo and Ida Hartke found that their son was an aspiring politician when, as a grade school student, he wrote that he planned one day to be governor of Indiana or a senator. In his early school years, Hartke made his mark as an outstanding scholar and a star basketball player. He studied as an undergraduate at Evansville College, where he was the student body president. After graduating with a BA in 1940, Hartke went on to Indiana University Law School. He thrived as a law student, becoming editor of the Law Journal. He also joined the Young Democrats.

World War II interrupted Hartke’s law school years. He served in both the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy from 1942 until 1946, entering as a seaman and rising to the rank of lieutenant. He was stationed in New London, Connecticut, where he worked in supply and purchasing at the Underwater Sound Laboratory. He was married in 1943 to Martha Jane Tiernan, a teacher, whom he had met at Indiana University. Hartke returned to law school after the war, where the young couple started a family. Married for sixty years, Hartke and his wife raised seven children.

Hartke received his law degree in the summer of 1948. The next decade was one of rapid rise for the future senator. By 1950 he was appointed to his first government position as a deputy prosecutor for Vanderburgh County. He also began his own civil law practice and became a highly successful plaintiff damage lawyer. In January 1952 Hartke was named the county chairman of the Vanderburgh County Democratic Central Committee, a position that allowed him to showcase his abilities as an astute political organizer. He is credited with rebuilding a struggling local Democratic political party.

In 1955 Hartke embarked on a successful campaign for mayor of Evansville, Indiana. As a candidate, his strengths as an energetic and tireless worker were evident. Voters saw an affable and motivated individual who promised to lower taxes, improve traffic safety, and clean up the streets. Hartke won the mayoral election with ease. Indicative of his confident nature, Mayor Hartke revealed to his friends shortly after being elected that he planned to run for the U.S. Senate and that he intended to win. He was thirty-seven years old. He began this next political endeavor by securing speaking engagements in other parts of the state. He sent out action squads to travel the state and talk to local leaders. Hartke’s growing family also got involved. His wife was always visible, carrying a big purse with a sign on it that read “Hartke for Senator,” and his children often joined their father on the campaign trail. On Election Day 1958, Hartke became the first Democrat to be elected senator from Indiana since 1938.

Hartke arrived in Washington in January 1959, an enthusiastic young senator with thick, wavy hair and horn-rim glasses. Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, who had befriended Hartke during his campaign, secured for the freshman senator two choice assignments, on the Finance and Commerce committees. Later, after Johnson became president in 1963, Senator Hartke would use these committee posts to help secure the advancement of Johnson’s Great Society agenda. In an unprecedented show of confidence, the newcomer was also tapped to be the vice-chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Hartke’s skills in political organization proved very effective in assisting other Democratic hopefuls to the Senate. Within two years, following the restructuring of Senate leadership after the 1960 elections, Hartke advanced to chairman of the committee.

As a senator, Hartke is perhaps best remembered for his opposition to the escalating conflict in Vietnam, taking an early stand against American military involvement. In fact, he was one of the first in the Senate to speak out against the war, aligning himself with a handful of other Senate Democrats in 1965. The senator’s decision to oppose the war was a true exercise in political courage, as it undeniably jeopardized his political career. It was a decision that also destroyed what had developed into a very strong friendship with President Lyndon Johnson. Afterward, Johnson would famously refer to his old friend as a “two-bit mayor from a two-bit town.” Hartke believed that the Vietnam War was an immoral one. In his book, The American Crisis in Vietnam (1968), he wrote, “Supposed political expediency can never justify clear-cut immorality whether in national or international politics. It may appear to succeed in the short term, but it carries the seeds of self-destruction.” As the war escalated, his opposition to it intensified, and in 1972 he briefly became an antiwar candidate for the presidency.

Hartke served three full terms in the Senate, a total of eighteen years. His personalized style of politics made him an appealing candidate, and despite his unpopular position on the war, he managed to be narrowly reelected in 1970. Ultimately settled by a recount, the 1970 Senate race is remembered as one of the most acrimonious in Indiana history. Hartke’s opposition to the war had cost him considerable support in Indiana, and he had also come under fire after it was reported that he was being investigated for accepting a campaign contribution of $30,000 from the Spiegel mail-order house in 1964. Reportedly, the investigation concerned whether this campaign contribution illegally influenced his subsequent support for postal legislation that favored the company. Hartke denied any wrongdoing and won his third term in 1970 by a mere four thousand votes. By the 1976 elections, the incumbent senator barely survived the Democratic primary and was soundly defeated in November by the Republican candidate, Richard Lugar.

After leaving the Senate, Hartke remained in the Washington, D.C., area. Always a strong family man, he set up a law practice in Falls Church, Virginia, called Hartke & Hartke, where he worked alongside several of his children. Hartke’s passion for his work continued until his death at age eighty-four from heart failure on 27 July 2003, in Fairfax, Virginia. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Perhaps Hartke’s most notable quality as a legislator was his fearlessness in taking an unpopular stand, often at great political risk, particularly on social issues about which he felt strongly. His liberal political philosophy made him a controversial figure in historically conservative Indiana. Nevertheless, he took the lead in the Senate on domestic programs, such as Medicare, in the 1960s. Among his greatest legislative accomplishments was his involvement in the establishment of the Head Start program and of automobile safety regulations. As chairman of the Commerce Committee’s Surface Transportation Subcommittee, he also introduced legislation that led to the creation of Amtrak and Conrail.

Hartke’s political record reflects his belief that public servants have a responsibility to find solutions for social problems and to improve people’s lives through activist government. He pushed to modernize Social Security and provide aid to the blind, and he made a strong contribution to higher education by helping craft legislation creating student loan programs. Hartke was also a powerful voice for veterans in the Senate. He served as the first chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs in 1971 and was instrumental in securing new benefits for veterans. In the private sector, he helped to develop the International Executive Service Corps, an organization modeled after the Peace Corps that sends business people from the United States to poor countries to assist in the growth of small businesses.

Vance Hartke was the author of several books, including Inside the New Frontier (with co-author John Redding; 1962), on the goals and aims of the Kennedy administration, and You and Your Senator (1970), an autobiographical account of everyday life in the Senate. Doctoral dissertations on Hartke’s political career include Richard Charles Hess, “The 1970 Senatorial Campaign in Indiana: A Rhetorical Case Study of a Political Campaign” (Ohio State University, 1973), and Nancy Jean Meyer, “Vance Hartke: A Political Biography” (Ball State University, 1987). Obituaries are in the Washington Post and New York Times (both 29 July 2003). A 1979 oral history interview with Hartke by the Association of Former Members of Congress is housed in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress.

Mary Baumann

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